At its peak, Chipoka Port on the shores of Salima South was a vibrant trade point from where thousands of Malawians made a living.
Built on the sandy beach of one of the shallowest parts of Lake Malawi, the port allowed hundreds of young men and women to get some formal and informal employment as cargo regularly docked here and needed both bookkeepers and movers from the ship to the upland section.
Women handily brought their ready-to-eat food here, buoyed by the ceaseless flow of both local and foreign tourists and traders waiting to connect onto the lake and the land.
Men with big vans and lorries either brought cargo to the port or ferried it away to both near and distant destinations.
Guest houses also made some quick fortunes from tourists and traders who rested here as they waited to connect to wherever they wanted.
“Life was sweet. Money was easy to find until the ships began to avoid the port,” Maria Kennedy, a resident of Saidi Village—where the port is located—says.
She reckons that as the inland vessels docked at the port, huge trucks delivered and collected goods and trains ferried fuel from this place, there was little to worry about.
“But now, we are back to poverty. The tragedy has been exacerbated by low crop yields and dwindling fish stocks in the lake,” Kenney complains.
A canoe ride around the dock exposes the nature of a country not interested in maintaining and upgrading its own critical structures.
The concrete slab where both people and goods were mounted from or debarked onto is somewhere high above the water, making it practically impossible for use.
Even close by, sands have silted to high levels which make it out of the question for a ship to dock here.
As such, even the train that used to stop by this place to drop or pick up cargo stopped doing that.
Once in a while, it passes by the port, its blaring horn and grinding sound reminding communities around the place of the old days when joy came not only in the morning.
“Because of the condition of the port, the initial arrangement where ships, trains and cars used to converge at one point has been seriously disturbed. We are suffering,” Kennedy asserts.
She wonders why authorities seem not to care about the port when it has been very clear that sand has been steadily accumulating at the harbour with water levels lowering every year.
“We could see that things were getting out of hand. Authorities too were watching this, but they never did anything such that the port finally got abandoned,” Kenney states.
In recent years, studies on Lake Malawi water levels have predicted continued instability with instances of low and increased stages mostly necessitated by climate change.
Two years ago, erratic rains spawned by climate change, global warming and unrelenting dry spells resulted in this ninth largest lake in the word slumping to its lowest water level in a decade.
The lowest water level the lake has ever recorded is 469 metres above sea level in 1931.
Despite some considerable rise which reached the highest ever of 477 metres above sea level in 1980, the lake has failed to pick up.
While arguing that the Chipoka part of Lake Malawi has also silted significantly due to a close river that is depositing sand there, Deputy Director of Marines, John Mhango, admits that there has not been consistent maintenance dredging which could uphold the port on its feet.
“In the past, that is what used to happen. That is why the port has been useful all this time,” Mhango declares without stating why the dredging has not been taking place.
He also suggests that the port needs to be extended further into the lake so that ships can resume docking there without the threat of getting stuck in the sinking sands.
“The good thing is that this part of the lake does not have rocks, so reviving the port is not a difficult thing as long as enough funds are available for the exercise,” the government official, himself an experienced ship captain, affirms.
It is not clear whether funds have been set aside to save the port and retain the glory of communities around it.
During the mid-year budget review meeting, Minister of Transport and Public Works, Jappie Mhango, indicated on more than one occasion that a reduction in the ministry’s allocation would affect rail and marine projects.
Thus, there could be little hope for Kenney and Chairperson of the local business community of Saidi Village, Kadango Ntwana, who together with thousands others are already facing hunger and were supposed to seek redemption from the port.
Ntwana whines: “Now from the little money that we struggle to make, we have to travel to Senga Bay [over 50 kilometres away] to board a ship. Life is tough.”
The National Transport Master Plan (NTMP) that President Peter Mutharika launched recently is apparently set to reduce logistics costs and preserve life for the country’s roads by moving to rail with connection to inland water transport.
However, this may not be achieved soon as it is simply an ambitious proposal that will depend on the availability of resources.
In the meantime, communities around Chipoka Port continue to cry for when it will bring joy in their lives again.
And for a country that has not invested enough in its transport sector, efficiently utilising the existing structures was supposed to be obvious.
This should be so as it is clear that one of the factors contributing to high costs of goods and services in Malawi is the failure to optimise the transport system, as President of the Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Carl Chokotho, observes.
“It is clear that transport has a huge impact on commodity prices. Having a good and efficient transport system is critical in trade activities,” Chokotho states.
He hopes that the newly launched master plan will be reviewed so that views of various stakeholders are taken on board regarding new projects.
Even for entities such as Chipoka Port, Chokotho wants a number of factors to be considered including the population of beneficiaries and trade variations along the transport corridor.
And as the NTMP starkly puts it, Malawi will need to engage extra gear in order to have a vibrant inland water transport system.
That, coupled with improved operational techniques and rail network, will make ports such as Chipoka hubs or trade once again.
But for a country that is good at formulating development plans and never implementing them, this could be just another dream that will not bring any job to communities around this abandoned port.
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